Police, Borei Keila Residents Clash as Homes Are Bulldozed

Hundreds of armed police and military police yesterday violently clashed with more than 200 irate villagers from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community and tore down their homes with bulldozers.

A police officer prepares to fire rubber bullets into a crowd of hundreds of villagers protesting the demolition of their homes at Phnom Penh's Borei Keila community near Olympic Stadium yesterday. Siv Channa
A police officer prepares to fire rubber bullets into a crowd of hundreds of villagers protesting the demolition of their homes at Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community near Olympic Stadium yesterday. Siv Channa

After years of struggle with the company Phanimex, which is owned by wealthy businesswoman Suy Sophan, villagers threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at armed forces, who fought back with rubber bullets, tear gas and rocks. Villagers and police said that at least 30 protesters and 34 police officers were injured dur­ing the fighting, which at times resembled a war zone. At least eight protesters detained by police were still in custody as of yesterday evening.

“We will protest until we die on our land if there is no solution for us,” said Seng Kong, a Borei Kei­la community representative. “If we do not have a house, where can we live?”

Yesterday’s violence was the latest in a long string of protests by members of the community, who were promised new accommodations in return for giving their land to Phanimex in 2003.

The company promised to build 10 apartment blocks to house the 1,776 affected families, but ended up building only eight, leaving more than 300 families still at the Borei Kei­la site with no housing resettlement plan.

A dozen human rights groups re­leased a statement condemning the vio­lence and accusing government au­thorities of abusing housing rights.

“Clearly, land-grabbing and forced evic­tions in Cambodia will not disappear in 2012, and the situation for people at risk of eviction will probably get worse,” said Tep Vanny, a member of the League of Boeng Kak Lake Wom­­en Struggling for Housing Rights, in a joint statement from rights groups.

Armed forces moved into the area near Olympic Stadium at about 8 am, and fighting lasted until around mid­day, when villagers pulled back and a bulldozer weaved around the sett­lement, knocking down homes one by one, leaving in its wake weeping vil­lagers trying to pick out clothes and other belongings from heaps of brick, wood and metal as fires smoldered nearby.

Afterward, all that remained was a wasteland of rubble and refuse, with smoke billowing into the sky from a mound of burning garbage. Bleeding vil­lagers were seen tending to their wounds as students watched in as­to­n­­ishment behind win­dows at a nearby school.

Borei Keila community representative Sar Sorn, who had a gash on her jaw and a bruise on her arm from being hit with stones, said that about 30 villagers, including some chil­dren, had been injured during the clash, and that most of the victims were re­ceiving treatment at nearby clinics.

Municipal minor crimes bureau police chief Sung Ly said that eight villagers were taken into custody, but that he did not know if they would be charged or released.

“We do not know what we are go­ing to decide yet. We are waiting for their lawyer first,” Mr. Ly said.

Phnom Penh military police de­puty commander Pong Savrith said 34 officers were injured, four of them seriously. He also said that it was not the police who initiated the fighting.

“Our authority did not throw rocks on villager, but villager threw rocks on police…[so] police threw back to protect themselves,” he said.

Mr. Savrith also said that three of those arrested were recently re­turned soldiers from Preah Vihear tem­ple and members of Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit. All three men were later released, he said.

One of the first houses to be de­molished was that of Pung Thavy, 36, who afterward stood on top of her flattened home with tears running down her face.

“My family and I were about to die if we did not escape from the house,” she said. “I do not know where I am going to sleep tonight.

“My family has documents from 2004, but we still do not receive an apartment, and now they demolished my house.”

SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who represents villagers in ne­­go­tiations with Phanimex, said that the demolition should not have taken place.

“I have met with the company and the people many times and they were supposed to negotiate case by case,” Ms. Sochua said. “This demolition is totally unacceptable—this is what we wanted to avoid.”

Phanimex chairwoman Ms. So­phan said the company refused apartments to the villagers because they were living on the land illegally and decided to demolish homes af­ter villagers resorted to violence.

“Villagers threw rocks at the authorities, which causes injuries, so we decided to clear all the houses,” she said.

As the sun set over the Borei Keila community, villagers could be seen searching for their belongings in the heaps of rubble. Most said they would stay the night, and some could be seen rebuilding their homes.

(Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng)

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